Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The eye has a thousand nights

Yale University Art Gallery
Chapel at High Street, New Haven, (203) 432-0600
To Know the Dark: American Artists’ Visions of Night
Ends Jan. 14, 2007.
The night
Makes everything grotesque. Is it because
Night is the nature of man’s interior world?
Wallace Stevens; "A Word With Jose Rodriguez-Feo"

Comprising about two dozen works by American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, To Know The Dark at the Yale University Art Gallery plumbs night as a metaphor for aloneness. In a small room off the main American art gallery, the dark walls are decorated not only with visual artworks but also with numerous literary—primarily poetic, such as the Wallace Stevens excerpt above—quotations pertaining to night and the dark.

This solitude is represented in Edward Hopper’s "Every Wind," a 1921 etching. A naked woman, her face turned away from us, climbs into bed. She looks out the open window as curtains billow into the room on a breath of wind. Similarly, in Hopper’s 1921 etching "Night Shadows," the viewer looks down on a solitary figure on the city sidewalk. Neither subject has the luxury of having their isolation pierced by returning the viewer’s gaze.

Even where there is the presence of multiple individuals, the sense of alienation remains. In Jacob Lawrence’s ink on paper work "Hot Summer Night," a fire escape is a place of haunted rest for a clearly uncomfortable tangle of family. Winslow Homer’s oil painting "In Front of Yorktown" depicts Union Civil War soldiers in a wooded encampment. Their faces grim, we see them alone in their thoughts, perhaps contemplating the nearness of death. The fall of darkness and the imminence of mortality have long been symbolically inseparable.

Notwithstanding the "dark" connotations of night, most of these works can be considered beautiful. George Benjamin Luks' "Evening Splendor," a watercolor circa 1930, layers a sunset of sultry gold, scarlet, translucent purple and blue over a black horizon. Georgia O'Keeffe's "Evening Star," also a watercolor, embraces abstraction while wetting the Japanese paper with the same lively colors painted by Luks. In his uber-Impressionist pastel "The Evening Star," Childe Hassam uses thousands of strokes of soft blues and off-whites to render a bright night sky.

In visualizing the darkness, the quality of light is precious, be it the reflective glow of the moon, the blaze of fire or the artificial glare of electric light. In George Inness' "Moonrise" (1887), a solitary figure stands in a boat in a marsh as the moon peeks over the horizon. The promise of home is seen to the right off in the distance. There is an eerie greenish cast to Ralph Albert Blakelock's "Moonlight," an oil on canvas circa 1880. Silhouetted tree branches somewhat obscure the glowing lunar orb. Still, amid the starless darkness it casts its reflection on the water below.

The presence or absence of city lights are notable in two photographs of New York City in the 1930's, one by Berenice Abbott and one by Edward Steichen and both titled "New York at Night." Steichen, situated within the brick and concrete canyons and looking up, sees row after row of dark lightless windows. Only the streetlights below resist the darkness. In Abbott's photo, viewing Manhattan from high above, the metropolis blazes with electric illumination.

Abbott's gelatin silver print is the only work in the show that hints at another, very different, conception of night: sociability and play. For night is also a time of music, the part of the day most associated with liberation from work, the refuge of sex. The Carl Sandburg quote on the wall recognizes this: "In the night the city lives too-the day is not all" (from "Night Movement-New York").

Or, to quote the Pretty Things from their 1965 record "Midnight to Six Man":

I sleep through the day, I wake around 4
But I always feel down, never get off the floor
Til the night comes around
See you downtown
Yeah, take in some sounds
Baby we'll score
Tell me some more
Midnight to six!


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